We’ve all heard the phrase “you are what you eat”. If you suffer from a food intolerance, eating the wrong thing can leave you miserable. If you have a food allergy, it can leave you far worse.

So, what’s the difference? Although they both cause unpleasant reactions in the body, food intolerance and food allergy have different causes, symptoms, and severities – and can have far different outcomes. In this blog, we’re dishing out everything you need to know to be prepared for your next bite.

Food Intolerance

A food intolerance is triggered by the digestive system. It occurs because your body can’t properly break down and digest a food you eat. This is usually because your body lacks a certain enzyme needed to digest that food. For example, people who are lactose intolerant can’t break down lactulose, a sugar found in dairy products.

The symptoms of a food intolerance can be severe but are always limited to the digestive system. They include:

  • Gas and Bloating
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Diarrhea or Constipation
  • Nausea

Those with food intolerance can often eat small amounts of their sensitive foods with only mild reactions. They may also choose to eat alternative options, such as lactose-free milk or almond butter.

Food Allergy

While a food intolerance can be miserable, a food allergy can be life-threatening. It occurs when your immune system identifies an ingredient in food (usually a protein) as harmful and creates antibodies to fight it, causing an allergic reaction.  The most common food allergies include shellfish, nuts, milk, eggs, and wheat.

The symptoms of a food allergy are severe and can affect the entire body. They include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rashes or Hives
  • Chest pain
  • Digestive symptoms
  • Anaphylaxis

Due to the possibility of death, people with a food allergy should avoid their problem foods completely. Immunotherapy given by injection or sublingual drops may help your body learn to recognize and tolerate common food allergens.

How to tell if it’s intolerance or allergy

Here are some key differences to help you decide if you have a food intolerance or a true food allergy:

Type of Reaction. A food intolerance only affects the digestive system, while a food allergy can affect the entire body.

Severity of Symptoms. Reactions due to food intolerance are often mild. Reactions caused by food allergy are usually severe and can be deadly.

Type of Exposure. Those with a food intolerance can often consume small amounts of their problem foods with mild or even no symptoms. People with a food allergy can sometimes have severe reactions from even touching their allergens and must avoid these foods completely.